Sewing a set-in sleeve into a garment, in most cases, is a relatively simple task. But, truth be told, sometimes set-in sleeves can be an absolute sewing nightmare.
The difference between an easy insert and a challenging one has more to do with the fabric than the technique. Sleeves set in quite easily in fabrics that have a reasonable amount of give or stretch, like all varieties of knits, many woolens and fleece. But, for those with little stretch or give, like broadcloth, most shirting fabrics and hard cottons, the task is much more difficult.
The hallmarks of a sleeve that has been set in properly is one where the entire sleeve fits smoothly within the armhole. The sleeve cap fits over the shoulder point with a smooth finish where no, and I mean no, unintended tucks, puckers or gathers are present. Achieving that smooth, unblemished cap in some fabrics, however, can be a challenging task.
Here are a few tips that will ensure a beautifully set-in sleeve whether using a fabric with lots of give or those that are far less forgiving:
1. To begin, pinning the sleeve into the armhole, anchor it at key points — underarm sleeve, ease points and shoulder point.
2. While almost all textbooks will advocate sewing rows of ease stitching between the two ease dots, it really is not necessary, especially for fabrics with a lot of give or stretch. Even for fabrics with little to no give, ease stitching can be eliminated in favor of strategic pinning.
3. If ease stitching is preferred, always sew the rows with the right side of the sleeve facing up, so the bobbin stitches are on the inside or wrong side of the sleeve cap. Since the gathering or easing will be done from the inside of the sleeve, bobbin stitches are always much easier to gather.
4. When working with hard cottons or shirting fabric, which have very little stretch or give, it is sometimes helpful to set the sleeve in a more flat state. In other words, before either the garment side seams or sleeve underarm seams are complete.
5. If lots of pins are required to ease in the sleeve, which makes machine stitching quite cumbersome, hand baste the sleeve in place. This allows you to remove all of pins, which makes it much easier to maneuver through the machine stitching process. The hand basting will also help ease and set the fullness in place to avoid unintended tucks.
One of the keys to easing in any sleeve is to strategically pin the sleeve in place. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Pin in stages, or between anchor points (underarm, shoulder point, ease points, notches).
Tackle the difficult parts of the sleeve cap first. Start by pinning and then sewing from one ease dot to the shoulder point. Then pin and sew from shoulder to the other ease dot. Finally, pin and sew the underarms, which are typically cut to the bias and where easing is the easiest. Sew from ease point, around the underarm, and then to the opposite ease point to complete the armhole.
2. When pinning between anchor points, pin halfway between those points to evenly distribute the fullness. If more fullness exists, pin again halfway between points. Repeat that process as necessary until all fullness has been evenly eased into place.
3. Pin within the stitching alley. Since the final stitching will most likely be done using a 5/8-inch seam allowance, place pins within the 1/2 inch and 6/8 inch allowance. By doing so, it ensures no unintended tucking will result.
4. When ready for the final stitching, sew with the garment side up. The pins will be facing the throat plate. This allows the feed dogs to provide an extra measure of assistance in easing in the fullness.
5. Sew carefully and slowly. Use your fingers as you sew to keep the sewing alley smooth and free of tucks developing.